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"They Want to Accept Baptism Very Much": An Abortive Orthodox Mission to the Ahtna Indians, 1850s-1930s

Andrei A. Znamenski,
Alabama State University

Native dialogues with Christianity in Alaska and Siberia were and continue to be multifaceted. They have ranged from resistance, as among the Chukchi, and selective borrowing, as for instance, among the Tlingit, to embracing Christianity, when natives turned "white man's" religion into an indigenous church as the Aleuts and Sugpiaq did. The purpose of my paper is to emphasize that no matter what response native populations came up with, its nature was defined first of all by internal developments in a given indigenous society rather than by colonial hegemony or by efforts of individual missionaries.

The story, which follows below, deals with the Ahtna Indians' failed attempts to bring Orthodoxy to their country. Available nineteenth-century records that chronicle activities of Russian missionaries among the Ahtna and other Athabaskan-speaking groups suggest that from the very beginning in this area Orthodoxy did not face too much ostracism from native populations. Sparse hunting-oriented populations, which were newcomers to essentially Yupik and Alutiiq areas, Athabaskans had loose clan structure and lacked excessive social control over individual behavior. I assume that these factors made them susceptible to new ideas in the first place. Attitudes of many Ahtna and Athabaskans in general toward Orthodoxy and Catholicism, especially at the end of the nineteenth century, could be described as "self- Christianization." Historian Jurgen Osterhammel introduced this expression to emphasize an initiative of native peoples to accommodate the Christian religion to their own ideology.

The Ahtna's attitudes toward Orthodoxy provide us with an example of such "self- Christianization," and show that in indigenous borderlands the initial drive to start a dialogue frequently came not only from clerics, but also from native populations themselves. So here we essentially have a society that sought contacts with missions. I want to stress this again simply because at least here in the United States in popular and semi-scholarly literature, which likes to victimize Native Americans, Christianity is frequently treated as a colonial imposition that supposedly robbed native peoples of their traditional culture. Of course, we always should keep in mind that there is an opposite trend that tends to emphasize only positive accomplishments of missionaries. The latter scholarship manifests itself, for instance, in present-day Russia, where the growth of state Orthodoxy and nationalist sentiments encourage some scholars to romanticize Siberia and Alaska missionaries and treat them as cultural heroes.

Before I get to the story itself, let me give you a few facts about the Ahtna Indians This Athabaskan-speaking group resides in the Copper River area. Because of the rumors of abundant copper deposits in their country, in Russian America the Ahtna were labeled as "Mednovtsy" ("Copper people"). Their overall number never exceeded 600-700 people, at least in the second half of the nineteenth century. I want to stress that in Russian America "Mednovtsy" were officially treated as natives completely independent from the Russian-American Company (RAC), and the latter was not in a position to enforce any regulations on them. The Copper River natives were not exposed to intensive contact with Euro-Americans until the end of the 1880s. The geography of Ahtna country including hardships of traveling by the Copper River partially might explain their weak contacts with the Russians and later with the Americans. Prior to the 1880s all their relations with the outside world were primarily restricted to trade.

On top of this, until the 1890s the Ahtna had little direct access to trading posts. They had either to use the services of Dena'ina middlemen traders (Ahtna neighbors) or to descend from the mountains to the Cook Inlet area or the delta of the Copper River to exchange furs for Russian and later for American merchandise. To be exact, prior to 1867 Russians did make random attempts to penetrate "Mednovtsy" country. Between the 1820s and 1850 there even existed a tiny trading post called Mednovskaia odinochka, which worked on an irregular basis and became the only evidence of Russian presence in Ahtna country. Because of the Ahtna sovereign status, RAC leadership sought to cultivate the their partnership through regular presents, which were provided to the Ahtna headmen each time, when a trade deal was successfully completed.

Due to the irregular work of the Mednoskaia odinochka, many Ahtna found it easier to trade by ascending to the delta of the Copper River or more frequently to the Knik and Toyonek areas. The latter two settlements were populated by the Dena'ina Indians, who were also Athabaskan-speaking group and who became totally Orthodox by the 1880s. The Ahtna always maintained close relations with the "Kenaitze" (a Russian name for the Dena'ina). During their trade trips to Knik the Ahtna depended on the hospitality of the Dena'ina in whose homes they stayed and whose meals they shared. For some Russians, who lacked a detailed knowledge of the ethnic mosaic of the area, such contacts appeared as a blood link. For instance, the engineer Doroshin stressed that the Copper River natives maintained on a regular basis connections with "the Kenaitze, their fellow-tribesmen."

Descending to Knik or Tyonek, the delta of the Copper River or sometimes even St. Nicholas redoubt, the Ahtna interacted with Orthodox mixed-bloods and Dena'ina, many of whom became Orthodox as early as the 1840s. We may assume that the "Kenaitze" frequently acted as informal carriers of popular Orthodoxy to the Ahtna. Formal missionary work among the Ahtna began in the late 1840s, when Hegumen Nikolai, the first missionary to this area, baptized in Knik and Kenai visiting Ahtna. Nikolai's successors were also interested in spreading their activities to the "Mednovtsy," but never had a chance to visit them in their country until the 1930s, despite the Ahtna's desire to establish a dialogue with Orthodoxy. Although the first recorded instance of the Ahtna's contact with Christianity took place in 1797, when Russian officer Dmitrii Tarkhanov tried to preach Orthodoxy to them, available sources suggest that missionary work among the Copper Indians did not start until 1849. The register of parishioners of the Kenai area prepared by Hegumen Nikolai for this year for the first time mentioned fourteen Orthodox Ahtna. Two years later their number increased to 46 people. Nikolai's records also show that Ahtna visitors invited him to come to their "habitats." Yet, referring to the obstacles of such a trip, the missionary answered to them, "I am not a bird and do not have wings." Once Nikolai was all ready for the journey, but the canoe with Ahtna rowers who were expected to fetch him was crashed over rocks by a rapid current. At first he repeatedly postponed his trip to Ahtna country until the "determination to accept the true faith and salvation be inflamed with a large fire of desire," and then dropped the whole idea and continued to work only with the Ahtna who visited Knik and Kenai.

We may assume that a desire of some Ahtna to accept baptism in the 1850s was to strengthen reciprocal relationships with Russian trade centers and Christian Dena'ina, who lived in their vicinity. It was obvious, for instance, in the behavior of Vasilii Tinal'tet, one of the Ahtna headmen. RAC wanted to make him a company's middleman in the Copper River country, the role he evidently adopted and successfully performed. In 1858 he and his fellow tribesmen sold a large number of furs to the company, for which RAC awarded him goods in the amount of 20 rubles. In the same year Tinal'tet adopted Orthodoxy, which was specially noted in the RAC documents.

On the surface, not much changed for the Ahtna with the transition of Alaska to Americans. The same mixed-blood Russian-speaking people or their relatives continued to serve trading posts in Knik, Tyonek and Kenai. Yet the choice of merchandise became more diverse and therefore the taste of the Ahtna for American goods increased. Thus, after an Ahtna Indian killed an Alaskan Commercial Company agent in Knik in 1886, his fellow-tribesmen approached Vasilii Stafeev, a Russian-born trade agent in Tyonek, wishing to pay redemption money. The natives especially stressed that they were so used to tea, gunpowder, and other "white men's" merchandise that they did not want the Knik trading post to be closed.

Incidentally, Stafeev left evidence of how the Ahtna initiated requests for baptism during trade meetings. For example, in 1887 in Tyonek, he traded with three "Mednovtsy" natives, two of whom asked Stafeev about the opportunity to accept baptism. Then in the evening of the same day, when Stafeev almost forgot about this request, the Ahtna again reminded him that "they want to accept baptism very much." As a result, the next day, on December 15, 1887, Stafeev baptized these two natives and gave them new names, Pavel and Karp. Two Dena'ina from the Tyonek village, Pavel Shitachka and Karp [Nukhdichugin], acted as their godparents. Being a lay Orthodox leader, Stafeev did not restrict himself to the formal baptism procedure, but also tried to indoctrinate them.

Stafeev described in detail how he introduced these two Ahtna to Orthodoxy: "I baptized them at my home. After the baptism I took them to the chapel, showed them icons with images of major feasts, and explained to them the meaning of baptism, the Nativity and other feasts. I also spoke about and showed them the icon depicting martyr Nestor. The old man liked icons so much that he did not want to leave the chapel for a long time. He especially enjoyed looking at the images of the Savior and Kazan Mother of God. After this I treated them with tea and cakes (prianiki). Then the Mednovtsy passionately thanked me for everything, first for the baptism, then for my talk in the chapel and finally for the tea and cakes. Yet, these two savages somehow had already learned quite enough earlier, specifically how to make the sign of the cross and even knew how to recite the prayer 'Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit." We may assume that they had received this rudimentary knowledge of Orthodoxy from their Dena'ina neighbors.

Until the 1880s a desire to maintain beneficial trade relations with Russian/Creole and Dena'ina Christians might have explained the Ahtna's wish to accept conversion. Yet in the 1880s there appeared another factor that might have also drawn the Ahtna to Russian Orthodoxy. Although the Ahtna had entered a period of dramatic changes as late as the end of the 1890s, epidemic diseases and the first American advances into Copper River country during these years perhaps created an anxiety and prompted "Mednovsty" to reassess their ideology and status in the changing social and economic environment. In 1886, a story spread about an Ahtna who died and, while his friends were making a coffin, was miraculously resurrected for only six days before "falling back asleep" again. During these six days this Ahtna Indian shared with his fellow-tribesmen a vision, in which an old man, a messenger from God, instructed the Ahtna to denounce shamanism and accept Orthodoxy. Moreover, the resurrected Indian assailed a shaman who happened to be nearby. The messenger of God supposedly asked the resurrected man to convey the following words to all shamans: "I would have said to you how you will be punished for your vocation, but you will not hear it from me. I will only say that you will face big trouble in the other world" and also "in the other world you will feel worse than others because you spoil people with your devil tools, force us to live and act in a bad manner." The resurrected Indian then added that he "was raised just to tell people how they should live and that they should abandon all old things." Having delivered this message, the native instructed his friends to finish making his coffin. The vision and the events that followed demonstrate a typical response quite common among preliterate indigenous groups having to cope with expanding Euro-American societies. In anthropological literature such events sometimes are called religious revitalization after Anthony Wallace's brilliant study Death and Rebirth of the Seneca and a few articles. Sergei Kan in his recent book Memory Eternal has described similar visions among the Tlingit. This spiritual encounter stirred a wide movement among the Ahtna, and in 1886 many of them were ready to go to Knik and Susitna in order to accept Orthodox baptism. Unfortunately, Hieromonk Nikita, who was responsible for missionary work during this time, had alcohol problems, treated his proselytizing assignments as a drudgery and did not respond to the Ahtna's initiative. In 1886 the number of the Ahtna converts did not exceed twelve people. Two years later the Ahtna, through Knik Dena'ina, sent a message to Mitropol'skii, an acting Kenai missionary who replaced Nikita, asking him to come and enlighten them about Orthodoxy.

It appears that, far from being a sudden revelation, the "dead man's" prophesy fell on ground that was already planted with the seeds of Orthodoxy brought by Nikolai, Dena'ina and Creole Christians. A year before the above-mentioned miracle Lieutenant Henry Allen, who visited the Ahtna, had already indicated that among the Copper River natives there existed people who were ready to bolster their traditional powers with new "spiritual medicine." According to Allen, an Ahtna "influential chief" named Nicolai [Nikolai] did not tolerate shamans and successfully competed with them by using new Orthodox spiritual medicine: "His power is supposed to come from the church (Greek), of which he is an apostle. He wears on a hat a Greek cross as talisman, and has a small quantity of paper and a pencil, with which he pretends to keep a record of all matters of importance to his people." We also learn that natives in the lower part of Ahtna country believed in Nicolai's spiritual remedies: "Some have such confidence in his healing power as to send the garment of a sick child many miles to him in order that he may sleep on it." This evidence suggests that Nicolai reinterpreted his role as a shaman. To boost his healing skills he seems to have packed the old "medicine power" into Orthodox wrap.

Clearly, the Russian Church at first decided to capitalize on this favorable situation and selected the Knik area, the area most visited by Ahtna traders, as the major center of their proselytizing work. Three missionaries, Nikolai Mitropol'skii, Alexander Iaroshevich and Ivan Bortnovskii wintered in this locality in 1888/89, 1894/95 and 1897/98 respectively. By 1889 local Dena'ina and missionaries erected St. Nicholas chapel in the Knik village, which later was removed to Eklutna. Eventually, the overall number of the Ahtna converts reached 127 people, whose godparents were Dena'ina Indians. Given such sudden "catch," church authorities even played for a while with the project of removing the center of the mission from Kenai to Knik. Yet the Ahtna's own attempts to start a dialogue with Orthodoxy did not receive further support. Bortnovskii was busy with his Dena'ina parishioners and did not have time for the Copper River natives. In 1901 400 Ahtna petitioned Bortnovskii and church authorities to help them build chapels in their country and send a missionary. Still, for financial reasons this request did not receive a response. Moreover, Paul Shadura, who succeeded Bortnovskii in 1907, wrapped up all missionary work among the Ahtna, and the names of the Copper River natives completely disappeared from his church registers by 1922. A chronic lack of resources prevented clerics from establishing a permanent mission among the Ahtna.

The third and last attempt to revitalize missionary work among the Ahtna was made in the 1930s. Capitalizing on the improved roads, the church started to assign to Ahtna country missionaries from Cordoba. Thus, in 1937 Valerii Povarnitsyn, one of these clerics, visited the Copper River natives' country. His notes suggest that the initiative for contact again came from the "Mednovtsy" themselves. Povarnitsyn was struck by the fact that the Ahtna had accepted Orthodox faith "gladly without any material considerations." Moreover, by the 1930s the Ahtna had already built several Orthodox chapels in their country. The remains of one of them can be seen in Copper Center until the present day. During my visit to the Copper Center I was able to retrieve a prayer (molitvennik) and memorial (pominal'naia kniga) books used by Ahtna and missionaries. Still, the Russian Church again failed to provide adequate support for its own mission.

Although the history of the Ahtna's contacts with the Russian church needs further research, to my knowledge, Orthodoxy, especially after all Ahtna chapels were destroyed in fires in the 1950s, gradually lost its significance, and was replaced by other Christian denominations. Middle-aged and young Ahtna hardly know anything about encounters of their ancestors with Orthodoxy. Moreover, many Ahtna who belong to the middle-aged generation cannot explain the origin of Russian Orthodox crosses and "spirit houses" on the graves of their deceased relatives, although this practice was clearly borrowed from the Christian Dena'ina. During my field trip to Ahtna country in summer of 2000 I saw native cemeteries where neglected and ruined old Ahtna Orthodox "spirit houses" stood side by side with Protestant graves, which were well taken care of.

Yet it is not my intention to lament the failure of Orthodox mission to the Ahtna Indians.

What can we learn from this story? Returning to the point I made in the beginning: we see a native group that repeatedly attempted to attach Christianity to its ideology. Similar stories we may find both east and west of Mississippi throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In my view, research of similar failed attempts of native "self-Christianization" may provide more convincing evidence in support of conclusions of recent scholarship that tribal peoples' interest in Christianity or lack of such interest should be ascribed more to internal developments within native communities and cannot always be explained as a colonial imposition.

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